A finding by a national research team challenges a commonly held assumption about cancer, potentially opening up new ways for detection and treatment.

When doctors look into the blood of cancer patients, they often find clusters of cells – regarded as malignant cells that have broken off from the primary tumour, spreading cancer to other parts of the body. This assumption has been held for more than 50 years.

Now, a team or researchers from Singapore have turned the assumption on its head, as they have reported that in colorectal cancer, these cell clusters are non-cancerous and come from the blood vessels that line the tumour, rather than from the tumour itself.

Dr Tan Min Han, Visiting Consultant at National Cancer Centre Singapore (NCCS), Singapore General Hospital (SGH) and Principal Research Scientists at A*STAR’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN), led the team of researchers from IBN, A*STAR’s Genome Institute of Singapore, Concord Cancer Hospital, National University of Singapore, NCCS and SGH.

“Meaningful innovation comes about when focused teams are willing to challenge and disrupt existing dogmas.”
– Dr Koh Poh Koon, Visiting Consultant, NCCS & SGH

He said, “This insight requires a reconsideration of decades of data, and gives scientists new opportunities to investigate and starve the cancer through drugs that manipulate the blood vessels of tumours. This method also gives physicians a new understanding and method of monitoring tumour blood supply in cancer patients receiving treatment.”

The four-year study on 80 colorectal cancer patients also discovered, unexpectedly, that more cell clusters were found in patients who have not received any treatment, compared to those who have received treatment, suggesting that they could be used for early-stage cancer detection.

The team will conduct further studies to determine if the same finding applies to other types of cancer, and to develop new liquid biopsy technologies for cancer detection and treatment.

Dr Koh Poh Koon, a collaborator in Concord Cancer Hospital, said, “I am glad that our public-private collaboration has yielded such key insights into cancer biology. Meaningful innovation comes about when focused teams are willing to challenge and disrupt existing dogmas, and the insights here allow for Singapore to develop its key technologies in the liquid biopsy domain.”

The research paper was published in Science Translational Medicine on 29 June 2016.